WHAT IS THE NATURE OF FATE? OF COINCIDENCE? OF LIFE ITSELF? TO what extent does the supernatural (or, at the very least, the improbable) meddle with the affairs of us mere mortals? And what about that mysterious emotion we call love? Does it transcend time — both forwards and backwards?
These are some of the questions that master Japanese writer Haruki Murakami tackles in his novel Kafka on the Shore (trans. Philip Gabriel, Vintage International, 2005. $15 paperback). It relates the tale of two respective protagonists whose paths begin to intersect as the novel progresses. The first, and arguably the main protagonist is fifteen-year-old runaway Kafka Tamura. At the novel’s outset, Kafka (who donned this fictitious name in honor of the famed writer) has decided to run away from his lavish Tokyo home in order to escape the unhappy clutches of his father. This sets about a series of circumstances that eventually land him in a tiny seaside town. All the while, young Kafka is haunted by an Oedipal prophecy that his father made when the former was just a child: Kafka will kill his father and sleep with his mother. How (and if) this prophecy comes about, is a mystery that endures throughout the duration of the novel, and its enigma haunts the reader just as much as it haunts young Kafka himself.
The second storyline traces the adventures of an old man named Nakata. Nakata, also from Tokyo, suffered a mysterious accident in rural Japan when he was a young child, and since that time can neither read nor write. Murakami does a wonderful job of painting his character (Nakata always speaks in the 3rd person, for example) and as one tracks his progress through the novel, one cannot help but become endeared of Mr. Nakata. A mysterious murder where Nakata is implicated is the impetus for his departure from Tokyo, but this is just the beginning of the enigma surrounding this character. Take, for example, the fact that though Nakata may be “not so bright” in his own words, this mysterious senior citizen can talk to cats, make it rain leeches or fish, and has an uncanny ability to navigate through life by mere chance. When his path begins to merge with Kafka’s, very interesting and bizarre things begin to happen.
Indeed, one of the most salient qualities of Kafka on the Shore is Murakami’s use of the supernatural. Ghost-like beings appear and make love to characters before burning away like morning fog; time appears to neither march forwards nor backwards; art and music function as portals to a land that exists deep in the human soul. There are many instances in the novel where a reader not familiar with Murakami’s signature surrealist style can find his use of the preternatural off-putting.
Take, for instance, an episode about halfway through the book. Nakata and Hoshino, a truck driver who has picked the old man up from the side of the road, are having dinner at a rest stop on the way to their next destination. While Hoshino is in the restroom, Nakata steps outside for some fresh air. In the distance, he sees a young man getting beaten up by a group of teenagers. In an act of heroism that borders on the comedic à la Don Quixote, Nakata rushes toward the injured man and tries to coax the men into stopping. When his pleas are ignored, he steps back from the gang, and opens his umbrella under the clear night sky. Moments later, leeches begin to rain down. What can potentially be frustrating for a reader is that Murakami never gives an ostensible explanation for this (or many other) occurrence. It is simply a scene that appears in the novel, and while it may seem extraneous and simply weird, to put it bluntly, the reader has the sense that it actually functions on an important metaphorical level as well. Exactly what that metaphor is can be decided only by the reader: Murakami provides clues, but no definitive answers.
In fact, this is one of the great appeals of Kafka on the Shore: its meaning, while seemingly omnipresent, is ultimately difficult to discern. One clue is the book’s title, a harkening to a song that appears in the novel called “Kafka on the Shore,” written by the aging beauty Miss Saeki. When she was fifteen years old, Miss Saeki fell in love with a boy her age and never quite recovered from losing that love. In his honor, she composed a song whose lyrics are so beautiful and mysterious that they deserve to be quoted in full:
You sit at the edge of the world,
I am in a crater that’s no more.
Words without letters
Standing in the shadow of the door.
The moon shines down on a sleeping lizard,
Little fish rain down from the sky.
Outside the window there are soldiers,
Steeling themselves to die.
Kafka sits in a chair by the shore,
Thinking of the pendulum that moves the world, it seems.
When your heart is closed,
The shadow of the unmoving Sphinx,
Becomes a knife that pierces your dreams.
The drowning girl’s fingers
Search for the entrance stone, and more.
Lifting the hem of her azure dress,
She gazes —
at Kafka on the shore.
The song is first mentioned nearly at the exact halfway point in the novel. What becomes a particular interest to the reader — and, simultaneously, to Kafka — is that glimmers of the song have already taken place in the novel, some more obviously than others. And yet, even the most astute reader will probably have trouble pinpointing exactly what the song means even after finishing the novel.
This fact is arguably one of Murakami’s great achievements in the book. On the one hand, readers typically like novels where the plot and all its ensuing conflicts are eventually resolved and where its meaning, while not exactly clear, can be articulated and expounded with citations. Kafka on the Shore, while offering some of the traditional characteristics of a novel (it can, to some extent, be described as a bildungsroman), the book ultimately evades an easy interpretation. In some senses, isn’t this mimetic of the very questions that the book wrestles with to begin with? What kind of presumptions would Murakami make if he attempted to answer these age-old questions? Who, after all, can sum up the meaning and value of something as abstract as “memory” succinctly? No one, not even the best philosophers, can definitively tell us about why coincidences occur, or why certain things happen to us at a given point in time. These questions, while enigmatic and without answer, are best reserved for the realm of contemplation and reflection, something that Murakami clearly recognizes in this novel. Sometimes not knowing the answer to something is the best kind of dilemma to be faced with.
A review of Kafka on the Shore is not complete without praising Murakami’s craft (and Philip Gabriel’s superb translation). Put aside for a moment the lean, muscular sentences; the sharp, witty dialogue; and the inspiring, yet simple descriptions of Japanese life, both in Tokyo and in the provinces. One of the most admirable achievements of the novel is Murakami’s masterful handling (and experimentation with) point of view. The novel is largely divided into Kafka and Nakata’s respective points of view (with sections dedicated to the point of view of minor characters). Kafka’s point of view is narrated in the first person (for the most part), and Nakata’s story is narrated through a strange blend of third person. Nakata’s actions are related by an omniscient narrator, yet Nakata himself never uses the pronoun “I” to speak about himself. Instead, he, too, uses a third person filter to describe his own actions: “Nakata’s quite hungry…” or “What should Nakata do with it?” or “Nakata’s not so bright”, among other examples. Nakata never quite takes ownership over his own life, a behavior that seems to find its roots in that odd accident in the countryside when Nakata was a little boy. Is this just Murakami’s way of creating a more fully-fleshed character, namely one that has some mental handicaps? Or is there a deeper meaning? Exactly what Nakata’s odd point of view means is something for the reader to discern, but its a puzzle rich in meaning worth thinking about.
Consider also Kafka’s point of view. It’s largely in the first person, but it’s anything but consistent, what with the constant interruptions from the “boy named Crow” who interrupts by addressing Kafka (and the reader) by using the second person. Crow seems to be a split personality, or perhaps even a phantom that accompanies Kafka throughout his adventures in the novel. The reader again must decide. The typesetter has chosen to highlight specific portions of Crow’s addresses in boldface, and at other times (specifically toward the end of the novel) it begins in boldface before blending in with the rest of the text. To decipher Murakami’s decision to use multiple points of view seems as frustrating as trying to answer the questions the book tackles, but alas, this issue at least has discernible hints in the punctuation and typeface.
Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore is a must-read for fans and non-fans alike, if not for the craft lessons than at least to contemplate the big questions of human existence. The novel begins innocently enough, with Kafka (and Crow’s) take on the plot of the book:
“On my fifteenth birthday, I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library. It’d take a week to go into the whole thing, all the details. So I’ll just give the main point. On my fifteenth birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in a corner of a small library.
It sounds like a fairy tale. But it’s not fairy tale, believe me. No matter what sort of spin you put on it.”
At this one point in the novel, Murakami is at his most transparent: this is definitely not your typical, run-of-the-mill fairy tale, nor is it a bildungsroman in the most traditional way, nor is it a typical novel by any means. Exactly what to call this work of art — philosophical treatise? narrative experiment? mystical farce? — what “spin” to put on it, remains entirely in the hands of the reader. Jagged and moonlit and as frustrating as the path might be, it’s a journey entirely worth making.